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Biological Determinism: A Rant July 22, 2005

Posted by Winter in anti-feminism, junk science.

ideology: refers to a system of ideas held by a particular group within a culture and which represents their interests, and the practices whereby such groups attempts to naturalise their ideas, meanings and values, or pass them off as universal and as commonsense.
– Geoff Danaher, Tony Schirato and Jen Webb.

This issue just makes me so mad! When I try and articulate my feelings…well…if you didn’t know me, you might think I’d turned into the kind of crimson-eyed, slavering feminist fiend usually found only in the fantasies of the UK Men’s Movement.

I’ll try and keep this short – actually, I have little choice in that because I don’t know enough about biology to write at length. I have no head for science. I probably shouldn’t even attempt to have a go, being as I spit blood every time I come across another piece of biological determinism masquerading as scientific fact.

Here we go again and again and again and again… ad infinitum. They’ve been trotting out the old “men and women are different” story for thousands of years, in order to justify the “men and women are unequal” situation. In the nineteenth century, in the West, this rhetoric was illustrated in the doctrine of “separate spheres.” Basically, this supported the rising bourgeosie middle-class’s desire get women to stay in the home and look after their men and children. They brought out the argument that women were not worse than men, in fact they were morally rather superior, but men and women just had naturally different roles in the world. Whereas men should be active outside the home, women were told that they just wanted to stay in there and create a haven for the men when they got home from the hurly burly of working life. This story was immortalised in Coventry Patmore’s vision of ‘The Angel in the House’ which inspired Virginia Woolf to say that before we could move on we had to “kill” the angel.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries science was appropriated to support this nasty cultural narrative. Now it’s genes, hormones, the size of your brain, whatever the latest fad happens to be, it gets used yet again to support the view that women can’t read maps or park cars. And men? Well, they’re just lying, cheating swindlers by nature. Great! To this day, people still go to great lengths to hang onto the mythology, not least because it lets them off the hook in all sort of ways. If men are naturally more violent than women, well, then maybe they can’t help it? Maybe they can’t stop? I really hate to see science used to support such obviously ideological, and potentially sinister, social agendas. It’s one of those cultural discourses which is repeated endlessly, over and over again, until people accept it; until, it begins to create the effect (of gender difference) that it claims simply to describe. Say it often enough and people will, not only believe it, but believe that it’s incredibly important.

The latest incarnation to cross my path is BBC One’s 3 part series, Secrets of the Sexes, which proves that, YES, you guessed it, men and women are “different”. Did you see that one coming! I’m afraid I couldn’t watch it because it would probably give me an aneurism, but there’s a good article written by Fiona Mckie about it in The Guardian Online (apologies but I cannot get this link to work!).

In this piece, Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London, refuting the programmes’s findings, argues that we should really be interested in the ‘extraordinary influence of cultural factors’:

‘However, this is being ignored while we concentrate on dressing up vague differences between the mental wiring of men and women so that they seem real, significant and important.’

This is not about diversity, as in “Men and women are different, so hooray lets celebrate difference.” This is all about fixing people, pinning them down to their biology and their bodies, closing down prospects and shutting off possibilities. It’s a highly regulative discourse, and we all know that lurking behind the old “men and women are different” is the old “men and women are not equal” narrative. No doubt the programme will claim just to be pointing out some biological facts, not promoting any inqualities. But, I’m sure that if I, as a white woman, told you that I thought black people were “different” to white people and said things like “Isn’t it just so great that they can all run faster than white people and can you see how well they dance?” you would correctly suspect me of being a racist. Lots of people still say this sort of thing about different ethnic groups, just like they say it about gay people and women, and in all cases it’s masked prejudice.

My dad commented this morning, in relation to the suggestion that men’s brains being bigger than women’s, “But as we only used a tiny percentage of our brain, if men’s brains are bigger, does that mean they use a smaller percentage than the women?”

It was a joke, but on that note, it is no less despicable when feminists make use of biological determinism to try and prove the innate natural superiority of women over men. This rhetoric always smacks of fascism, no matter whose interests it is being deployed in. Inverting the discourse is not the solution to our problems. I came across this rather terrifying 1978 essay by Andrea Dworkin the other day called Biological Superiority: The World’s most dangerous and deadly idea. I quote:

“It is shamefully easy for us to enjoy our own fantasies of biological omnipotence while despising men for enjoying the reality of theirs. And it is dangerous–because genocide begins, however improbably, in the conviction that classes of biological distinction indisputably sanction social and political discrimination. We, who have been devastated by the concrete consequences of this idea, still want to put our faith in it. Nothing offers more proof–sad, irrefutable proof–that we are more like men than either they or we care to believe.”

More recently, feminists have been accused by people, such as the Pope, of trying to erase the differences between men and women. This is pretty hillarious! As if feminists had the power to do such a thing. Gender is so deeply ingrained – whether socially, or biologically, or both – that we can’t just get rid of it. Besides, the fact of having a gender identity is NOT the problem, being oppressed, or forced into a certain role simply because you happen to have a particular set of genitals, that’s the problem. Feminists are not objecting to gender in itself – they are objecting to gender oppression and inequality. Some people are more “gendery,” more feminine or masculine, than others, true, but no one should be oppressed or constrained because of their sex or gender. Moreover, although we cannot necessarily change our sense of our gender, we probably can alter behaviours associated with gender.

I haven’t read much on the subject, but the books of Ann Fausto-Sterling have been recommended to me. Sterling is a feminist biologist working at Brown University. Apparently her books Myths of Gender and Sexing the Body do a good job of debunking the whole junk science apparatus.

According to Sterling:

“One of the major claims I make in this book … is that labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision. We may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision, but only our beliefs about gender–not science–can define our sex. Furthermore, our beliefs about gender affect what kinds of knowledge scientists produce about sex in the first place.”

Who knows what forms and expressions our genders could take in a non-patriarchal world? It might be fun to find out.

Yes, of course we are all different. I am biologically different to every other person on the planet. I am more feminine than some women and men, and less feminine than some other women and men. Some people have a very strong sense of their sex and their gender, of being a “woman” or being “feminine.” Other do not ascribe much importance to this factor in their lives. People are different to one another. That’s ok. It’s how it’s supposed to be and there is no essential need to attach any great significance to it.

In the words of some immortal feminist graffiti:




Oh, and intersex people? They’re from earth too, and a brave bunch if this site of anything to go by.


1. Naiades - July 25, 2005

Biological determinism does make me quite mad. as a good friend of mine said last week, why are people doing this kind of research, because it’s very difficult to change biological factors, where as cultural factors are at least subject to change over time. The only answer for continued research of this kind can be to justify the determinst ideology as you rightly pointed out.

ohh, makes me mad.

2. Milla - October 16, 2006

As a feminist intersex woman, transitioning after having been expected to be a “guy” for 30 years, I have to say there are underlying differences besides cultural factors. Sexual differentiation of the brain is a real phenomenon.

I’m definitely not just doing this for fun.

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