The politics of biology

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on May 11, 2018

Feminist biologists must not insist that models of objective science are only those studies that are directed by morally and politically emancipatory interests

Science, it would seem, is not sexless; she’s a man, a father and infected too — Virginia Woolf

There has been, for a while, a hectoring, post-modern critique of biology, particularly from the ranks of academic feminism (aka gender studies departments), that professes that biology has been politics by other means. The essential first principles of the scheme of Feminist Epistemology are that there are no objective facts. Objectivity is a cover for masculine bias; all standard criteria for scientific inquiry have been sullied by the aforesaid bias, are therefore inherently sexist and inconsonant with women’s ways of knowing. There is no such thing as detached, unprejudiced inquiry. Observations are always to be understood as a product of the gender of the observer who made them.

In 2014, the University of Wisconsin started North America’s first ever post-doctoral programme in feminist biology. Feminist biology is the application of feminist theory and methods to the study of biology. The programme, ostensibly, is meant to uncover and reverse gender bias in biological theory. That’s brilliant and above all, in the service of Karl Marx’s favourite motto: De omnibus dubitandum. Everything must be doubted. The truth, obviously, can’t be sexist. All that valorised androcentric patriarchal bias must be hunted down, shot in the head and strung up for all to see.

But the laying of the axe to the root must mean more than attacking gender-laden language and metaphor in biology — about the egg being passive that does not move or journey and the sperm being streamlined, moving in strong lurches to burrow through the egg coat and penetrate it. And the description of menstruation as the debris of the uterine lining (Emily Martin’s rant in How Science Has Constructed a Romance based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles). That’s a hop, skip and jump away from Sandra Harding’s description of Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual” and Luce Irigaray’s assertions that E=MC2 was a “sexed equation” because it “privileges the speed of light over other speeds vitally necessary to us”.

Feminism is not science. It’s not held to the requirements of science. Feminist biologists must not insist (like their foremother Sandra Harding) that models of objective science are only those studies that are explicitly directed by morally and politically emancipatory interests. The most famous post-modernist grouse has been against evolutionary psychology and sexual selection. They believe that these are hand-knitted theories that constitute the lowest form of casuistry and seem to have a dogged affinity for casting female processes in an unflattering light. Apart from being deterministic and reductionist and morally irresponsible, they also fall under the domain of mansplaining.

That a form of human behaviour has its basis in biology does nothing to endorse it. No amount of opaque constructivist and post-structuralist language should be allowed to pervert or misrepresent that very basic disclaimer. To demonstrate the unflattering light on female processes, allow me, dear reader, very briefly, to take you through the meadows of biological theory, to give you the long view provided by evolutionary biology. I refer you to two splendid papers on pre-ecclampsia by Jennifer Davis and Gordon Gallup (2006) and Robillard et al (2008). Both seek to answer the question: what’s the evolutionary meaning of a young woman dying with convulsions during childbirth?

Pre-ecclampsia is a disorder of pregnancy that, if allowed to go untreated, can produce a malignant form of hypertension, protein loss in urine and convulsions, endangering the life of the woman and very messily aborting the foetus. The only definitive way of reversing it is by delivering or aborting the foetus. The narrative on its pathogenesis goes something like this. It’s a condition almost exclusive to humans on account of the large head size of the foetus. The human foetal brain requires 60 per cent of total maternal nutritional supplies in the womb as opposed to the 20 per cent for the other 4,300 species of mammals. All mammalian embryos are implanted in the womb shortly after conception; humans are the only species to undergo a deeper invasion towards the end of the first trimester (to provide an increase in blood flow and nutrition). This requires a dropping of the immunological guard on the part of the female because the embryo has unfamiliar antigens from the male. Which happens by a process of familiarisation of the sperm — a habituation to paternal antigens by frequent inseminations. What’s the evidence for this? Pre-ecclampsia occurs in 40 per cent of primigravids (first time pregnant) with less than four months of sexual cohabitation prior to conception; in 25 per cent of those with 5-8 months of cohabitation; in 15 per cent of those with 9-12 months and five per cent of those more than 12 months. It’s almost never seen in multigravids (unless they have changed their partners). It’s been called a couples disease.

Jennifer Davis delivers her summa in the following manner: “Guided by an evolutionary perspective, we contend that unfamiliar semen may be a biological correlate of paternal investment. According to our hypothesis, evolutionarily, pregnancies and children that result from unfamiliar semen have a lower probability of receiving sufficient paternal investment than those resulting from familiar semen. We theorise that pre-ecclampsia is a biological mechanism that evolved to terminate maternal investment under circumstances in which the likelihood of paternal investment by the sire is doubtful. Frequent insemination by the same male over an extended period of time would be a relatively good index of a committed pair bond and predict the likelihood of provisioning, protection and care by the father after childbirth. Not only does conception as a result of non-consensual intercourse preclude exercising mate choice (for females), it’s unlikely that the father will care for the mother and her infant. It would, evolutionarily, be in the female’s best interests to minimise chances of conception as a consequence of rape.”

The unstated postscript to all of this is that in pre-ecclampsia Dame Evolution subvocalises her proscription of not just rape but also incest, casual sex and systematic polyandry. Robillard et al allude to this, but only just. Is all this unflattering for women? Possibly. But it’s not, by any reckoning, a khap panchayat advisory on polyandry.

I once referenced this paper in a conference on dangerous ideas at Delhi University as a part of a larger polemic. By the time I was done, I was looking at a large, brimming reservoir of feminist anger and unease. I was accused of mansplaining and told that this theory was extremely problematic. Problematic? That’s a whine, not an argument. Attack it, by all means, for its false assumptions (if any), lack of evidence (if any), the absence of critical rigour, or its methods, but not because it’s an unpleasant theory that isn’t emancipatory to women. Isn’t objectivity a value-free stance? What are observers expected to do? Be even-handed with evidence? Or try and dress up their results to make them politically agreeable? Should evolutionary perspectives be now committed to liberal causes only? For humans, biological predispositions and liabilities needn’t lead to biological destiny. Pre-ecclampsia is a treatable condition with pretty good outcomes for mothers and infants.

And by the way, isn’t “women’s ways of knowing” a self-defeating definition of feminist epistemology for apostles who don’t believe in sex differences at all?

Ambarish Satwik


Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer

Published on May 11, 2018

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