Lives of the Saints of Science: Darwin
Part of my socialization into the world of science and engineering was, of course, the worship of great and important historical figures in the professions who, naturally, just happened to all be white males. This socialization was an informal, even casual, process – passing references in the introductory matter of various textbooks; framed portraits and busts on the walls and in the halls of university buildings dedicated to science and engineering; and the ubiquitous idolatry of a few key figures, e.g.: Galileo, Newton, Mendeleev, Darwin, Einstein.
As an acolyte of science, I was more than happy to worship along with everyone else. Growing up Catholic, saints were an important feature in our culture. My parents made sure that we had access to books in our home, and one of those books was Lives of the Saints, of which I think this is a modern edition. I understood the canonization of certain figures and the retelling of their stories as exemplars for the common folk to live up to, perhaps even to invoke in times of stress.
This past year the scientific community has been engaged in a massive telling and retelling of the story of one of those key figures – Charles Darwin. All year long, I have been reminded of my first encounter with the actual writings of Mr. Darwin, as opposed to the presentation of his myth. It happened in a women’s studies class.
The class was “History of Feminist Thought”, taught by Jean O’Barr at Duke University. Every woman scientist should be so lucky to take a seminar class like that one. Jean gave us our heritage, the heritage that had been kept from us in the rest of our university education. Where do you think we started with the history of feminist thought? If you guessed 1400 and The Book of the City of the Ladies by Christine de Pizan, you go to the head of the class, girl!
My treasure from the class, however, is Alice Rossi’s The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beavoir. And as we worked our way through it, we eventually came to Antoinette Brown Blackwell. Antoinette was part of the large Blackwell clan deeply involved in the suffragette cause, and is famous as the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the United States. But I came to know her as the author of “Sex and Evolution”, an excerpt from her larger work The Sexes Throughout Nature, published in 1875 in New York by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. It is a contemporary rebuttal to The Descent of Man.
I could not believe what I was reading. Could a scientist, a revered scientist, really have had his head this far up his ass, when it came to the actual science? My confusion and distress over the unbelievable and increasing loads of misogyny I’d been subjected to as a woman in engineering had propelled me into that women’s studies classroom in my fourth year of graduate school. But I had assumed that the problem was confined to the social behavior of scientists, and not the science itself. Reading Blackwell, and then Darwin, sent me into a tailspin.
People say, “well, of course he was a product of his times” as if that explains or excuses the misogyny and racism of Descent. And in some ways it does – you can’t read Darwin out of context. But what, then, are you to make of the adulation that surrounds him, with nary a whisper about his culturally-inflected misogyny and racism, laced through and through his scientific theory of humans? What are you to conclude, when this obtains in an environment where you have been made to feel, on a daily basis, less than welcome for the lack of a few dangly bits? Well, if you are me, you might feel like pukin’ on some shoes at that point.
I was very, very, angry for a long, long time, and my anger has only moderately diminished over the years, because I keep in mind the following. Christine de Pizan arguing in 1400 for women’s reason and abilities. Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1700’s, with A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Antoinette Brown Blackwell in 1875 arguing against Darwin, and disappearing into obscurity as far as the evolutionary theorists were concerned. Mary Beard, suffragist and historian, writing Woman as Force in History in 1946. Margaret Rossiter with her exhaustive two-volume history of women scientists: Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 (1984) and Before Affirmative Action 1940-1972 (1995). The 2007 NSF Report, Beyond Bias and Barriers. Along with all these larger works, there are the publications over the 50 years of the Society of Women Engineers’ history in which they repeatedly attempt to show look! women can be engineers, and feminine, too! I have citations to works that are much less well known that the ones above, written by women engineers and chemists and medical doctors over the course of the twentieth century, in an attempt to demonstrate that it has “now” been proven that women can be educated and have a career in [insert scientific career here] and still be womanly women so as not to threaten western civilization as we know it.
We have been having this argument, literally, for centuries. We have been demonstrating, literally, for centuries that we are capable of doing whatever it is we put our minds to doing, if only the goddamn patriarchy will get out of our way and stop erecting roadblocks, quit installing us in fortresses and digging moats around them. But the conversation goes on in many quarters as if it just started last week. Don’t women want to give up their careers to stay home with the kids?????? Oh my! Do women have the brains to do math????? Oh dear! Can women and men work together in the lab without men having 24/7 erections and fondling teh boobiez uncontrollably because, omigod, evolution!!!?!??!?!?
Go ahead and light the incense and shake the censor in the direction of Darwin’s altar, if you feel the need. He did give us the grand theory of evolution, without which not much else in biology makes sense. Praise the theory of evolution, puke on the shoes of descent. They aren’t mutually exclusive activities. We could do with a lot more shoe-puking honesty in ScienceLand. We wouldn’t have Lives of the Science Saints, anymore, but we’d have something much more interesting and helpful: lives of real scientists, honestly discussed. It would be a helluva lot more interesting than yet one more tedious round of can women combine career and family oh noes?!?!?!