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The Idea Of Natural Selection Sociology Essay

Undoubtedly the oldest and arguably the most often assumed explanation for the perceived gender difference is the biological argument. This approach takes a view of gender development as being fixed from conception. This view has had many advocates throughout history and until recently was accepted as the reason for gender differences. Since sex was biologically inherited, differences between the social recognition of gender were presumed to be natural.

Aristotle is perhaps one of the earliest individuals to comment on the differences in gender with his theory of ‘heat.’ In this theory he insists that ‘woman’ is a mutilation resulting from some defect in ‘heat’ which reinforced his view that ‘women’ are inferior to men. This theme was continued somewhat ambiguously by Sigmund Freud who said that ‘anatomy is destiny.’ He held the belief that the female body was associated with uncertainty, ambiguity and emotion. It is unclear whether he meant this literally or not, but it reflects a view held by many people who believe that differences in anatomy are the sole reason for the differences in behaviour.

Although scientific thought has now been used to explain biological differences for centuries, prior to the nineteenth century, most explanations came from theologians who claimed that God had created men and women for different purposes. Some scientists argued at the time than women’s biological disposition made them inadequate. An example of this can be found in Taylor (1871) where he advised women to stay at home for at least five or six days a month:

“We cannot too emphatically urge the importance of regarding these monthly returns as periods of Ill Health, as days when the extraordinary occupations are to be suspended or modified . . . Long walks, dancing, shopping, riding and parties should be avoided at this time of the month invariably and under all circumstances”

(Taylor 1871)

In this way, Taylor uses the natural phenomenon of female menstruation as an excuse to dictate women’s behaviour. Biologically, gender is about sex: male and female. Males are programmed to produce many sperm whereas women ovulate just once a month producing a single ovum. This biological dichotomy must necessarily lead to behavioural differences between the sexes in order to maximise fecundity.

In his ground breaking work, On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin sought answers to the questions of how some species become the ways they are and why there may be a stark and astonishing variation within the same species. His solution emerged with reference to the law of natural selection – the idea that species are continually evolving (making new mutations) and those which are best adapted to their environment reproduce successfully and thus, the adaptive characteristics that offer a survival advantage are passed onto the next generation.

The idea of natural selection was in direct conflict with the prominent theological belief at the time that God created everything, not just the Firmament but all species, and that every animal was intact and unchanging. Darwin believed there to be differences between males and females. ‘Women seem to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and lesser selfishness,’ he wrote in ‘The Descent of Man,’ ([1871] 2004). Once these biological differences between men and women had been declared scientific fact, writers and critics began to challenge social inequality and general discrimination against women which was now seen to be in violation of ‘the laws of nature.’ Many argued that women’s efforts were misguided because they were placing their social and political aspirations above the purpose for which their body was created.

Social scientists were quick to adopt Darwinism, but only their view of it. The whole of human evolution was compressed and used to explain differences between races, families and the two sexes. Gustav LeBon, writing in 1879, summarised the popular concept. He spoke of women’s brains being closer in size to that of the gorilla and that the ‘intelligence of women represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and are closer to children and savages.’ (Quoted in Kimmel 2008: 21).

Biological studies have contributed to two aspects of the study of gender. First, the differences between the two sexes and second the inequalities in society that lead to gender-based divisions. It is likely that the biological argument will continue as natural scientists recognise that the concept of survival of the fittest is probably true for biological systems where successful adaptation to the environment is a prerequisite for species survival. As a paradigm for society, however, this biological interpretation implies Social Darwinism which has been discredited since the mid-twentieth century.

Feminists have since argued that differences in male and female behaviour were due to cultural training and therefore constructed. Such feminist thinking is known as ‘constructivism.’ It is the "nurture" side of the nature-nurture debate. Essentialism, by contrast, believed that men and women were “essentially” different.

The basic constructionist argument is that the idea of gender has come through culture. It is harder, however, to pinpoint exactly how gender roles came about i.e. how do we learn them? How do they differ across different cultures and historical periods?  Why do they differ at all?  We can see that all the things that go into forming what becomes known as your gender identity that have to be learned: clothing, hairstyle, manner of speaking in a group, name and nickname, hobbies, work habits, acceptable and unacceptable friendships, etc.  The fact that transgender and intersex people don’t fit either of the traditional male/female categories could be a clear sign that gender might itself be learned.

Many psychologists hold the view that personal identity, sexual orientations and ways of relating socially as males and females depend on a system of personal constructs. The constructionist approach to the categorisation of gender therefore is the belief that the classification of male or female before or after birth is a distinguishing mark of our identity throughout our lives.  Things created by culture are very real, and cannot easily be changed: buildings, books, economies, laws, prisons, prizes, even our own names.    Kohlberg (1966) believes that the notion of ‘fixed gender’ is fixed and is prominent between the ages of three and five years of age and that even at this young age, they gains an understanding of this. In addition, values are added to gender-based behaviours. This can be reinforced by peer relations, the media, especially TV programmes, clothing and toy shops. I can relate to this personally as I have a twin sister and we were always given ‘boy and girl’ toys by relatives such as Barbie and Ken dolls. We as children endorsed this and I always pursued the boy toys which identifies with the gender theory that boys and girls are actively involved in constructing their own gendered identities.

Following on from this view point, Anne Constantinople (1979) believes that the process of acquiring gender categories is motivated by young children desiring structure in their environment as boys and girls and the desire for rewards as opposed to punishments within the gender category. By puberty, sexual orientation is regarded as a significant aspect of gender schemata which is very critical to our social lives and interpersonal behaviours. Carol Gilligan (as quoted in Kimmel 2008: 88) describes herself as being ‘brainwashed’ in puberty because of her earlier self-conceptions which didn’t fit into the gender role expectations. For Gilligan, the schemata of the self are separate from the social order and the “internal, silenced voice of the woman” is suppressed by authority figures. However, common to all of the theoretical positions is the basic idea that internal cognitive mechanisms shape an individual’s actions. One’s knowledge of oneself as a man or woman provides a strong, controlling influence on aspects of life and social behaviours. For the cognitive theorist, the mind is the reality, not the body. This can be evidenced through transvestites, gay men and lesbian women who don’t traditionally fit into society’s view of men and women.

Constructivism claims both that gender is learned in a regulated and predetermined way from culture, but, since the messages we receive from culture end up conflicting a lot of the time, there perhaps needs to be more questioning of the relationship between cultural influences, social pressures and environmental constraints with regard to gender.

Science is a subject that has always attracted much gendered debate. Feminist authors such as Evelyn Fox Keller (1982) have argued that Nature itself has become andocentric because men have dominated science for so long. We thus need to be careful about explaining gender with reference to biology or other “naturalist” interpretation as science has been so skewed by this masculine attention. A majority of scientists are men. Keller (1982) argues that science itself is in no way affected by this fact. It doesn’t matter that science employs, or doesn’t employ women. This is her interpretation of the “liberal” critique. However, she acknowledges that such an andocentric viewpoint has biased scientific endeavour. As an example, she cites contraception as a subject which has received little attention compared to its importance. However, in current times, this is now a subject which is quite widely debated which reflects an important attitude shift in the gender debate.

Keller (1982, 1990) believes that the language of science now reflects masculine metaphors and values. Gender has played a very important role in the language of science. This is not to do with sex i.e. male or female, but ideas of masculinity and ideas of feminism. The purpose of the Royal Society, for example, was to establish a truly masculine philosophy. [The Royal Society was founded in 1662 but did not admit women for nearly three hundred years, in 1945!] This “masculinity” in the Royal Society is representative of a general “masculinity” in science. Fox Keller explains, saying that attributes like “empathy” are missed out of scientific reasoning, so they do not cloud predictions. Empathy is seen as a feminised attribute and although she believes that all humans are capable of empathy, she also recognises that it is too often described as a female trait and therefore less worthy of indulging. Keller argues that this masculinity in science is still often accepted without question, and so it is still a male dominated area (Keller, 1990). Francis Bacon said “Let us establish a chaste and lawful marriage between mind and nature”. So the “mind” was equivalent to the husband and “nature” was his wife. The purpose was a patriarchal marriage – the domination of the bride (nature). This led to think objectively was thinking like a man. Three hundred years ago the first “scientists” believed that to understand the way the world works they had to think in masculine terms, and exclude the feminine traits of affection, feeling and emotion. These images of masculinity and feminity still affect science today. Objectivity, reason and the mind are male attributes, and subjectivity, feeling and nature are female attributes.

Keller extends her argument by discussing the “laws of nature”. Phenomena are observable, but above them are the laws. Francis Bacon said that we need to “vex” nature. We do this all the time, twisting and bending nature to conform to our concepts of her laws. Science doesn’t give us nature – it gives us a masculine description of her. Entering science, for both men and women, requires re-socialising. We must learn its language, and the language of science shapes the actual content of science. Scientists are more effective if they have a “feeling for the organism” (Barbara McClintock, quoted by Keller 1982). This is the capacity for empathy. Both men and women have this virtue, but it is not well-developed in men because of the ways in which they are raised. It has been identified as a feminine talent, and therefore has been excluded from science.

Socially constructed gender relations from the Victorian period are still with us today. One debate was over whether women should be educated in colleges and universities. One writer even went as far to say that women would grow larger and heavier brains and their uteri would sink by attending college. Darwin’s colleague, Thomas Huxley wrote in 1860, ’Five-sixths of women will stop in the doll stage of evolution, to be the stronghold of parsonism, the drag on civilisation, the degradation of every important pursuit in which they mix themselves – intrigues in politics and friponnes [1]  in science.’ Huxley, thus, connected his anti-clerical, political, and scholarly fears to an evolutionary biological position in order to exclude women from these traditionally male-dominated fields.

Women aspiring to become scientists and doctors had a difficult time in the Georgian and Victorian eras. They were usually barred from membership in the important scientific societies, and even today women are largely under-represented in science. Even obstetrics was the preserve of men. Male midwives assumed that the female body was an object to be taken apart and examined and some, like Dr Spratt, became something of a Dr. Frankenstein with his illustrations of disembodied women (Secord 2006). In the nineteenth century men could be so misogynistic that they believed that women were doubly disadvantaged to contribute to science. They were considered religious and easily led by the lure of Christianity and lacked the intellectual rigour necessary for genuine scientific research! (Lightman 2006).

In spite of these obstacles, women did make significant contributions to the natural sciences, especially in the art of illustration. Emily Gosse illustrated the science writings of her husband Philip Gosse, and other women were important popularisers of science such as the seaweed expert Margaret Gatty, the botanist Anne Pratt, and the prolific author and illustrator Louisa Anne Meredith (Gates 2006). In addition, many Victorian women scientists possessed excellent observational skills which were critical for the popularisation of science. The quality and clarity of the work of women scientists put them in good stead with amateur scientists, and their books proved hugely popular.

Mary Somerville (after whom Somerville College in Oxford is named) was an exemplary populariser of science. She published books on the microscope, astronomy and geology, and even coined the term of “scientist”. She was an active suffragette, campaigned against vivisection and against slavery in America. She was considered the greatest of all nineteenth century women science writers, and was offended the Vatican observatory was closed to women after dark – which somewhat hampered observations of celestial bodies! But even Somerville denied women’s ability to do original science “...that spark [of genius] from heaven is not granted to [my] sex”. It would be interesting to know whether this was said with a hint of irony, or whether the fashionable opinion of women’s inferiority in this regard were so entrenched at this time, that Somerville genuinely had a limited view of her capabilities of her sex. If this was the case, then it shows that the social exclusion that took place at the time and the assimilation of the naturalist gender norms by women themselves.

Perhaps nowhere in industrialised society have the gender differences been more marked than that of the sciences. In Victorian times, women scientists were not allowed to join any learned societies, or even to proceed to university degrees. Some, even at the top echelons of Victorian Society, had to publish their work privately. Even today, women working in academic science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have to contend with gender-based institutional structures and practices that limit their abilities to advance (Rhoton 2001). If we recall Huxley and, even Mary Somerville’s, remarks, we can see that the naturalisation of sex differences could be used to justify social exclusion of women from science. But does this separation of genders in the sciences reflect actual sex differences in human behaviour? Although the biological argument has a certain conceptual tidiness because the way we behave and the social arrangements between men and women (gender inequality) seems to stem directly and inevitably from the differences between men and women. I argue that gender is ultimately a social construct which is heavily influenced by socialisation. Although the biological argument reassures us that the differences are only natural because they should occur due to the obvious differences between men and women, this, in turn, reinforces existing inequalities since no-one is to blame as we cannot be held accountable for the ways that we act.

Constructivism, however, shows us the inexplicable bond between society and gender, and how ideas of masculinity and femininity are influenced by society and cultural influences. In the last twenty to thirty years feminism and the sciences have converged markedly, driven by more women becoming researchers and teachers in science. Feminism analyses science in terms of historical circumstances and societal beliefs and is a major driver for equity in science. Biomedical science, since the 1980s, has revisited the concept of the sexes and given new and different meanings to feminity, masculinity and gender. The construct of sex is not immutable and may be as culturally constructed as gender (van den Wijingaar 1997).

I have shown in the example of science, particularly in the Victorian era, that the view of naturalism can be contrasted to constructivism. This contrasting perspective helps us either avoid or highlight differences between genders. I believe that just as science has evolved beyond all expectations in the last thirty years; it has increasingly had to move from a masculine discourse to accommodate more feminine aspects. I think this is of great value, and has driven recent astounding advances in science and will continue to do so.

[3016 words]

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