Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Girl
Consider a child born in the summer of 1944. Later she became a scientist. Does a portrait of her at age two (figure 9.1)—one hand holding a water-filled test tube up to the light, the other grasping a measuring cup— give evidence of the early expression of an inborn inclination to measure and analyze, of her genes leading her down the road to the research laboratory? Or is it testimony to her feminist mother’s determination to find nontraditional toys for her young daughter? As the child grew, her mother began to write children’s books about nature, and the young girl and her brother (who also became a scientist) learned on their walks through the woods to spot mosses, ferns, mushrooms, and insect homes.1 When she was in graduate school, her father wrote a biography of Rachel Carson.2 Science genes or environment? A logical argument can be made for each interpretation, and there is no way to prove whether either answer is right.3
For many who would think about this girl’s life path, gender is not far from the surface. Her early interest in frogs and snakes marked her as a tomboy, a label some social scientists today interpret as an early sign of untoward masculinity.4 When she was eleven, her friends at summer camp wrote her epitaph—‘‘In memory of Anne, who liked bugs better than boys’’ —perhaps foreshadowing a future homosexuality. But that summer she developed a painful crush on one of the young male camp counselors, and by the time she was twenty-two she would marry for love and lust. Only years later would that epitaph for an eleven-year-old seem prophetic.
This young girl didn’t like dolls, kept pet snakes and frogs, and grew up first with heterosexual interests and later developed homosexual ones. How are we to interpret her life, or any life? Speculating about genes for analytical personalities or homosexuality may make for good party chitchat or provide
FIGURE 9.1: A budding scientist? (Source: Philip Sterling)
solace for those eager to explain why someone turned out ‘‘that way.’’ But partitioning genes from environment, nature from nurture, is a scientific dead end, a bad way of thinking about human development. Instead, I suggest we heed the words of the philosophers John Dewey and Arthur Bentley, who half a century ago ‘‘asserted the right to see together. . . much that is talked about conventionally as if it were composed of irreconcilable spheres.’’5
In this book I have shown how medical and scientific knowledge about anatomy and physiology acquires gender. I started at the outside, with genital gender, and moved inward, from the brain to body chemistry and ultimately to something quite intangible: behavior (in rodents). It turns out, however, that we cannot understand the underlying physiology of behavior without considering an animal’s social history and contemporary environment. True to the image of the Mobius strip, when we reached a level of analysis that involved chemistry (and, by implication, genes)—that is, when we were at the most interior moment in our journey—we had, suddenly, to consider the most exterior of factors: What was the animal’s social history? What was the architecture of the test apparatus? Why did specific genetic strains respond to hormone stimuli only under certain conditions? And while the driving question on the exterior surface of the Mobius strip is, ‘‘How does knowledge about the body acquire gender?’’ the active question on the inside surface is, ‘‘How do gender and sexuality become somatic facts?’’ How, in other words, does the social become material? Answering this inside question would require a book-length essay, so in this concluding chapter I offer but a framework for future research.
Successful investigations of the process of gender embodiment must use three basic principles. First, nature/nurture is indivisible. Second, organ – isms—human and otherwise—are active processes, moving targets, from fertilization until death.6 Third, no single academic or clinical discipline provides us with the true or best way to understand human sexuality. The insights of many, from feminist critical theorists to molecular biologists, are essential to the understanding of the social nature of physiological function.