Is our scientific language sexist? Exploring 2,000 years of biological literature

sperms_egg

At a fundamental level, all major scientific textbooks depict male and female reproductive organs as systems for the production of valuable substances; eggs and sperm. These issues have frequently been a subject of scholarly analysis in the modern literature on science and gender. Interestingly, whereas extensive critical studies on ancient society have appeared since the 18th century, it took the social and political developments of the past 30 years, and especially the new self-consciousness of the women’s movement, to focus attention explicitly on the neglect of many aspects of the study of the position of women in the ancient world.

In what follows, I am exploring to what extent the language in our scientific textbooks is sexist, in regards to concepts like fertilisation, ovulation and menstruation, and look into the lasting impact of Aristotle’s work and his – separated by 2,000 years – “clash” with influential anthropologist Emily Martin.

Aristotle’s Theory of Conception and its Social Implications

It is notorious that Aristotle considered the male sex inherently superior to the female. His general beliefs in this area reflect certain deep-seated attitudes that were widespread in Greek society and found lasting discussion in a long line of writers, including Hesiod, Plato, Galen and more. Despite somewhat reasonably giving an answer to the pangenesis doctrine (i.e. the seed is drawn from the whole of the parent’s body), and a solution on the debate of epigenesis (i.e. there is a true formation of new structures as the embryo grows) over preformation theory (i.e. the embryo contains all its parts in miniature from the beginning), his own positive theory concerning what each parent contributes to the offspring was in certain respects very mistaken.

According to Aristotle, the aim, and justification, of natural science is to reveal the causes that are responsible for the phenomena. He believed that four factors must be considered in giving an account of any object or event, whether natural or artificial: (i) the matter, (ii) the form, (iii) the moving cause, and (iv) the final cause. In the case of human reproduction, Aristotle believed that matter is supplied by the female parent, the mother. The form, to which the male parent contributes alone, is the specific character of humans and what marks them out from other animals (wherein man as a rational two-legged animal). The moving cause is provided by the male parent, and the final cause is the end towards which the process is directed, the perfect, fully grown man into whom a child will grow.

In Aristotle’s work, On the Generation of Animals, females are defined by their incapacity to concoct the blood. Blood is the final form of the nourishment and that from which all parts of the body are formed. The menses are both greater in quantity and more bloodlike than the semen, signs that are less concocted, as it would be expected in the weaker and colder sex; thereupon for being colder, women are less able to concoct the useful residue. The role of male’s semen, in an analogy with the regulations made by a craftsman, is to supply the form and the efficient cause.

Interestingly, for his representation of the relationship between males and females, Aristotle as a zoologist knew very well that there are plenty of species of animals where females are stronger, bigger, more dominant, and longer-lived than males. However, despite the considerable list, Aristotle used these as exceptions to his rule that naturally, males are longer-lived than females, for that was true in humans. In Aristotle’s writings, what is natural is the goal, the end, the ideal; it is better for male to be differentiated from female (among other examples like right from left, master from slave etc). Therefore, from the point of view of what just is the case, females are as regular as males; but from the point of view of their function or capacity, they are like natural deformities; natural because regular, but deformities because Aristotle was convinced that they are to be defined by their incapacity to concoct the blood into semen, in the way males do (in fact, for him females were like crippled males). He had not, however, defined males by their incapacity to produce menses and give birth.

sperm_eggAristotle was to provide massive support for the view that the male’s contribution to reproduction is the formative one. His particular definition of the female in terms of incapacity, his idea of the relationship between male and female within the concepts of form and matter, and his development of the idea that the male is an efficient cause in reproduction, all involve or incorporate new conceptions. They represent his own solutions to the problems, reflect his theoretical preconceptions, and are supported by new empirical considerations and arguments. However, the broad agreement between his position and the common general assumption of the superiority of the male role is clear. His account of women in particular, and of female sex in general, provided some kind of rationalisation or accommodation of widespread Greek social attitudes.

 

Modern Scientific Views on the Egg and Sperm

Moving away from Aristotle, towards modern medical textbooks, the picture of egg and sperm, as drawn even in contemporary scholarly literature, seems to rely on stereotypes central to our society’s cultural definitions of male and female, usually implying that female biological processes are less worthy than their male counterparts, and basically that women are less worthy than men. A brief overview of important scientific texts, stemming from the original analysis by Emily Martin (1991), is illustrative enough to argue for this point.

Following Martin’s report, given the enthusiasm for the male processes, it seems that for medical and biological authors, the process of making sperm involves precisely what menstruation does not: production of something deemed valuable. Though ovulation is deemed wasteful in a vast number of scientific textbooks, the male production of sperm is always impressively discussed. The common picture of female reproductive organs seen as biologically interdependent and male organs as autonomous, operating independently and in isolation, has been expressed in even more striking, occasionally literary ways, in non-scientific literature. However, it is the example of biological and medical texts that more clearly serves to bring to light the social implications.

Scientific knowledge evolved during the 1980s and 1990s to show, among others, that parents equally contribute to the generation of the offspring and the egg has a rather active role in absorbing the sperm’s head. Consequently, since 1984 medical literature seems to appear more conservative in its expressions on the passive role of the egg. However, Martin further argues that in many medical texts the role of sperm as the actor remained the standard prejudice. Many commonly used textbooks are referred below:

Examples from Textbooks on Egg and Sperm

Description

Reference

Female – egg – Role Male – sperm – Role
Menstruation as a disintegration of form. Sperm tails can “propel the semen into the deepest recesses of the vagina.”

Guyton, 1984

Menstruation as a failed production. All of the ovarian follicles containing ova are already present at birth, they slowly degenerate and age. “Perhaps the most amazing characteristic of spermatogenesis is its sheer magnitude.”

Vander et al, 1980

“The female sheds only a single gamete each month.” “The seminiferous tubules produce hundreds of millions of sperm each day.”

Mountcastle, 1980

“Oogenesis is wasteful”, The egg is rescued by the sperm. Sperm are small, “streamlined”, with “strong” tails and efficiently powered.

Alberts et al, 1983

“From the tip of the sperm’s triangular head, long, thin filament shoots out and harpoons the egg”.

Schatten et al, 1984

The sperm penetrates the egg and fertilizes it.

Wassarman, 1988

 

Some thoughts

Aristotle, the important ancient Greek polymath, had made a long standing misogynistic argument on women’s assisting role. The aforementioned analogy of the artisan, who turns the piece of wood into an aesthetically beautiful object, vividly combined the association of maleness with activity and form and femaleness with passivity and matter, and, in doing so, displaced any notion that female may be the procreator.

The inferiority of the female sex in Aristotle’s writings was not an explicit end-point, but a value-ridden premise underlying his logical arguments on other, biological and political, topics. Apparently, fortunately for the historian and unfortunately for the women whose lives have been adversely affected by his influence, Aristotle as a taxonomist was quite skilled in the art of making distinctions between kinds of life. It is perhaps this influence of his multifaceted writings that granted his theories with numerous followers through the ages, despite the existence of the Hippocratic and Galenic two-seed theory.

On a different note, it is, however, undoubted that Aristotle’s theories and their lasting influence became an important part of the women in science movement’s arguments and the realization of the need for feminist historiography in intellectual history. The notion of gender and science, which first appeared in the 1970s, coincided with the collective endeavour called the feminist theory. In this social and scientific context, Emily Martin, anthropologist and devoted feminist, suggested in her 1991 work that in the standard scientific narratives (at least of the 1980s) there was a very clear sense that male plays the active part. What she was arguing about is the way in which language has built into specific ideologies, confinements and a non-conscious agenda.

Moving to the era following the new understandings on conception, on the one hand, indeed the texts preserve a picture of the energetic sperm, it is not as intense as in previous examples though. Indicatively, her two main examples do not seem to fully support her argument. For example, Schatten et al (1984) convincingly acknowledged that “recent research suggests the almost heretical view that sperm and egg are mutually active partners”.

In conclusion, on the one hand, Aristotle, an early scientific genius, made a misogynistic argument. It is, however, a responsibility of the later generations of scientists to critically accept a portion of his theories. On the other, Emily Martin, influenced by this two-millennia-long oppression of women, examined all scientific texts under a radical feminist perspective. In doing so, however, she also achieved in making a successful political point in terms of equality of the genders.

What is worth considering is whether the discussed problem lies in the scientific concepts or in the language used. This would raise a further question of how could we fully distinguish between the two, since it is true that language by definition has a number of cultural implications that come with it. Modern research, having gone through the contradicting influences deriving from each century’s discussions, acknowledges that science may shape gender in an analogous way as gender may shape the understandings of science.

In the meantime we can only hope that in terms of our cultural understanding, things have changed.

Antonis

 

PS. All the interesting sources for this post:

  • Alberts B, Bray D, Lewis J, Raff M, Roberts K, Watson JD. 1983. Molecular Biology of the Cell. New York: Garland.
  • Aristotle. [On the generation of animals] Περί ζώων γενέσεως.
  • Balme DM. 1987. ‘Aristotle’s biology was not essentialist’. In Gotthelf A, Lennox JG. (eds). Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Boylan M. 1984. ‘The Galenic and Hippocratic Challenges to Aristotle’s Conception Theory’. Journal of the History of Biology 17: 83-112.
  • Guyton AC. 1984. Physiology of the Human Body. Philadelphia: Saunders College Publishing.
  • Keller EF. 1995. ‘Gender and Science: Origin, History and Politics’. Osiris 10: 26-38.
  • Lloyd GER. 1970. ‘Aristotle’. In Lloyd G. Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Lloyd GER. 1990. Aristotle: The growth and structure of his thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lloyd GER. 1991. Methods and Problems in Greek Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lloyd GER. 1999. Science, Folklore and Ideology – Studies in the Life Sciences in Ancient Greece. London: Bristol Classical Press.
  • Mountcastle VB. 1980. Medical Physiology. London: Mosby.
  • Martin E. 1991. ‘The egg and the sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles’. Signs 16: 485-501.
  • Schatten G, Schatten H. 1984. ‘The Energetic Egg’. Medical World News 23: 51-53.
  • Vander AJ, Sherman JH, Luciano DS. 1980. Human Physiology: The Mechanisms of Body Function. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Wassarman PM. 1988. ‘Fertilization in Mammals’. Scientific American 259: 78-84.