Social “Knowledge” and the “Scientificity” of “Biological Sex”

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Despite the insistence of empiricists and positivists that scientific practice is strictly objective, history has repeatedly forced us to confront cultural bias and ideology bleeding into the production of scientific knowledge. From Nazi race science and phrenology to the scientific pathologization of homosexuality, the history of science is riddled with structural bias that serves to reaffirm the dominant beliefs in a given society. Given that science is a social practice and that scientific knowledge is only knowledge within the context of concrete social relations, this reality should hardly come as a surprise. Until recently, the role of “science” in bolstering patriarchal cultural beliefs (misogyny, transantagonism, homoantagonism, and binarism) has remained unexamined. The notion of two biological sexes, despite its recent origins in the 18th century, has been left unquestioned as a static and metaphysical rationale for “eternal” and “innate” gender roles. If we accept that science is a social practice, which I believe it is, then it follows that the objectivity of science can be corrupted by the pervading cultural and ideological logic of a given society. Specifically, the belief that there exist two human biological sexes originated in the 18th century as a way to reinforce patriarchy, rather than to account for any new scientific discoveries. Furthermore, recent science has overwhelmingly undermined the strict polarity of the two-sex model, proving the theory to be utterly unscientific and failing to capture the nuances and complexities of reality.

First, I will explain what I mean when I say that science is a social practice. In Values and Objectivity, Helen E. Longino argues that the science achieves objectivity because of its social character. Scientific knowledge is produced by groups, rather than individuals, given the role of the scientific community and peer review in producing knowledge. She argues that scientific knowledge is objective insofar as it adheres to shared standards, is critiqued by community responses, and that scientists are treated as equal authorities. While Longino’s conception of scientific knowledge is significantly more coherent than positivist sophistry, it’s necessary to probe deeper. Which social groups practice science, and which social groups legitimize science? Here I will borrow from Louis Althusser’s framework from his lecture series, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists. Althusser believes that scientific practice necessarily operates with underlying philosophy; this “spontaneous philosophy” contains two elements. Element 1, or the materialist element, represents convictions “stemming from the experience of scientific practice itself”, that science is an objective process to gain knowledge about existing material objects (Althusser 132). Element 2, or the idealist element, is a reflection on scientific practice “by means of philosophical Theses elaborated outside this practice by the religious, spiritual, or idealist-critical ‘philosophies of science’ [emphasis Althusser’s]” (133). In other words, scientific practice contains a mix of objectivity and structural bias from ideological and cultural beliefs. If we accept Karl Marx’s thesis that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”, it follows that under capitalism, Element 2 is characterized by bourgeois ideology. Thus, it is entirely possible (even probable) that the objectivity of the scientific community that Longino describes can be corrupted by the ruling ideas of society.

Now, I will say a few words about the nature of patriarchy, specifically within the context from which the concept of two biological sexes arose, namely the relatively early stages of European capitalism. I loosely define patriarchy within a capitalist society as the oppression of women and those who transgress coercive gender roles (e.g. compulsory heterosexuality) by means of (1) repression (e.g. domestic violence, r*pe) and (2) ideology (e.g. the ideal Man and Woman, heteronormativity). These repressive and ideological structures exist in the final analysis to reproduce exploitative productive relations: specifically, women are relegated to perform reproductive labor (domestic labor and sex work) in order to reproduce the labor force, so that there always exists new labor-power for the capitalists to purchase. This is the economic, political, and cultural basis of patriarchy. In Caliban and the Witch, Marxist-feminist Silvia Federici locates the modern oppression of women in the primitive accumulation of capital and the fall of feudalism, noting the following processes:

(i) the development of a new sexual division of labor subjugating women’s labor and women’s reproductive function to the reproduction of the work-force;

(ii) the construction of a new patriarchal order, based upon the exclusion of women from waged-work and their subordination to men;

(iii) the mechanization of the proletarian body and its transformation, in the case of women, into a machine for the production of new workers. (12)

Capitalism cannot be but patriarchal, because the reproduction of labor-power cannot occur at the site of production, and thus a division of labor is required between productive and reproductive labor. It is with this understanding of patriarchy in the era of capital that I will situate the historical origins of the idea of two “biological sexes”.

Given the historical context and pervading cultural norms within which the notion of two biological sexes was born, the theory was condemned to be tainted with bias from the beginning. In chapter 5 of Making Sex, Thomas Laqueur traces the historical origins of the scientific concept of biological sex, which began in the 18th century. At the time, there was a shift from the one-sex to the two-sex model in human biology; for example, “female testicles” were renamed “ovaries” (Laqueur 173). However, this paradigm shift was not rooted in any new scientific discovery, but rather in politics. It was built in order to reify cultural gender roles and misogyny by manufacturing an origin in innate biological processes:

Fertilization became a miniaturized version of monogamous marriage, where the animalcule/husband managed to get through the single opening of the egg/wife… In other words, old distinctions of gender now found their basis in the supposed facts of life. (Laqueur 184)

This attempt to root historically contingent gender within eternal biological categories did not come from the scientific community itself, but rather was forced from without; however, scientists, prone to the dominant ideas of their time, did not hesitate to aid the backwards project.

Scientists did far more than offer neutral data to ideologues. They lent their prestige to the whole enterprise; they discovered or bore witness to aspects of sexual difference that had been ignored. Moreover, the politics of gender very clearly affected not only the interpretation of clinical and laboratory data but also its production. (165)

Thus, not only was the production of scientific knowledge corrupted by cultural bias, but the problem ran even deeper: scientists were actively recruited to do the work of bolstering the dominant ideology.

Within Longino’s framework, we can say confidently that the objectivity of science had been corrupted in this instance; specifically, that “a set of assumptions dominate[d] by virtue of political power of its adherents” (183). The logic, structure, and categorical organization of science is not immune to the dominant ideology of the society within which knowledge was produced.

[Sexual difference] is logically independent of biological facts because already embedded in the language of science, at least when ap­plied to any culturally resonant construal of sexual difference, is the lan­guage of gender. (Laqueur 165)

Thus, in the final analysis, “sex” is the gendering of the body; the conceptual abstractions of “biological sex” have more to do with gender as a cultural phenomenon than conformity to scientific data itself. Given the dominance of bourgeois ideology in the production of this concept, it is clear that Element 2 is the dominant aspect in the theory of “biological sex”, and thus the concept is irredeemably idealist.

Idealist anatomy, like idealism generally, must postulate a transcendent norm. But there is ob­viously no canonical eye, muscle, or skeleton, and therefore any represen­tation making this claim does so on the basis of certain culturally and historically specific notions of what is ideal, what best illustrates the true nature of the object in question. (Laqueur 178)

As Thomas Laqueur has thoroughly documented, the popularization of sexual dualism was more of a counter-revolution in science; “scientific” sexism was given a new life. In fact, it went hand-in-hand with “scientific” racism:

Claims of the sort that Negroes have stronger, coarser nerves than Euro­peans because they have smaller brains, and that these facts explain the inferiority of their culture, are parallel to those which held that the uterus naturally disposes women toward domesticity. (Laqueur 167)

It is usually claimed that those with XX chromosomes are “female”, and those with XY chromosomes are “male”, a convention that did not originate until the early 20th century, along with the discovery of sex hormones (Steadman). However, this convention came with significant backlash from the scientific community; for example, Thomas Montgomery of the University of Pennsylvania called the sex chromosome theory “an absurd and simplistic overextension of the chromosome theory of heredity” (Steadman). It’s also worth noting that sex is assigned at birth based on genitals, rather than chromosomes; in fact, most people go their entire lives without ever knowing what their chromosomes are. But despite the initial failure of scientists to produce an objective theory of biological sex, recent research has initiated the process of correcting the biased practices of the 18th-20th centuries. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling calls sexual dualism a “cultural fiction”, noting that intersex infants who are born with ambiguous genital configurations are often subjected to corrective surgery in order to be shoehorned into one of the “two sexes”. On top of that, some people have chromosome configurations of XYY, XXY, and other variants. But Fausto-Sterling doesn’t deny the existence and diversity of genitals, chromosomes, hormones, and other characteristics; rather, she understands that sexual dualism is only one way of making sense of bodily differences, specifically within a society with strict gender roles  (Allen).

Ian Steadman notes in an article in New Statesman that abstract scientific categories are always being refactored; for example, nothing changed about Pluto itself when it was designated a “dwarf planet” instead of a planet in 2006. Steadman argues that “it’s crucial not to think the taxonomy more important than the reality it’s meant to describe”.  Thus, the reduction of sexual dimorphism to XX and XY chromosomes is incongruent with reality, given that few sexual characteristics are determined by the presence or absence of a Y chromosome. Sarah Richardson argues that the influence of cultural gender norms on biology is there from the beginning of the knowledge process:

Gender has helped to shape the questions that are asked, the theories and models proposed, the research practices employed, and the descriptive language used in the field of sex chromosome research. (Steadman)

Even the sex chromosomes themselves are gendered: the X chromosome is described as “‘sociable’, ‘controlling’, ‘conservative’, ‘monotonous’, and ‘motherly’” while the Y chromosome is characterized as “‘macho’, ‘active’, ‘clever’, ‘wily’, ‘dominant’, and also ‘degenerate’, ‘lazy’, and ‘hyperactive’” (Steadman). But modern research has found that sexual characteristics are determined by a complex network of biological and environmental factors, and cannot be reduced to so-called “sex chromosomes”.

As a fundamentally social phenomenon, science is subjected to the influence of societal beliefs and biases throughout the entire knowledge process: through individual biases of scientists, flawed categorical abstractions, and systematic fabrication from the political elite. Thus, science produced in a patriarchal society is fundamentally at risk of being patriarchal science. As is evident from the historical context within which sexual dualism was formed, the concept is irredeemably idealist and misogynistic. It is no coincidence that such a concept arose at the dawn of capitalism, in which human society saw for the first time a rigid division between productive and reproductive labor. Until this division of labor is eroded, and society progresses beyond these structural biases, we must remain vigilant and ruthlessly critical of the scientific knowledge being produced in the realm of biology.

Bibliography

Allen, Samantha. “No, Kevin D. Williamson, sex is not a biological reality”. The Daily Dot, 4 June 2014. Accessed 3 December 2016.

Althusser, Louis. “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists: Lecture III”. Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and other essays. Verso, 1990, pp. 131-165.

Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia, 2004, p. 12.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Marx, Karl. The German Ideology. Marx-Engels Institute, 1932.

Steadman, Ian. “Sex isn’t chromosomes: the story of a century of misconceptions about X & Y”. New Statesman, 23 February 2015. Accessed 3 December 2016.

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