Sister Ape

Caroline Humphrey

  • The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science by Londa Schiebinger
    Harvard, 355 pp, £23.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 674 57623 3
  • Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science by Donna Haraway
    Routledge, 486 pp, £40.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 415 90114 6

Most people, without thinking about it very much, elide sexual differences between men and women with gender, the cultural categories of masculinity and femininity. Surely, one might imagine, the more scientists discover about the former, the more refined and true will the latter become. These two books undermine that view. People are aware that non-Western cultures have different ideas about gender from our own, but no one is disturbed by that for a moment: their ideas, we say to ourselves, are based on ignorance and strange religions and values. We think we are different: we have science, which is gradually and inexorably analysing those difficult questions which lie in an unsorted jumble at the back of our minds – ideas of natural propensities, hormones, the left and right sides of the brain, feminine nurturing or, even more hazily, genetic programming for differences between the male and female brain. These books do not deny that science is making advances, but in different ways make the point that we need to be able to stand back some way in order to know how to think about them.

Londa Schiebinger has an important story to tell about something we can know: the history of women in Western science. The point she makes is this: that the question of female capacities – in this case, whether ‘the female’ is good at science – is inextricably linked, not only with concepts of gender, which is obvious, but with the definition science has made of itself. Early on, in the 16th and 17th centuries, women did participate in science. Universities then were not as prominent as they are today in intellectual life, and modern science emerged from several other social institutions, notably kings’ academies, the workshops of artisans and upper-class salons. Women were involved in all of these. As the Renaissance courts of Europe turned from military to rhetorical skills, the superior power attributed to the mind seemed to justify women’s participation in intellectual culture. Aristocratic women scientists became members of early academies in Italy and Germany, and they were powerful patrons and intellectual power-brokers in the salons which proliferated in 17th-century France. In Germany a large number of women were prominent in astronomy, working for academies in private family observatories in the artisan workshop tradition. Even more surprising, in view of the present-day idea that girls don’t like maths, was the popularity of mathematics with women in general: the Ladies’ Diary, for example, published in England from 1704 to 1841, was devoted to teaching trigonometry, algebra, astronomy etc, and in 1709 the editor announced that by popular demand he would remove articles on cookery in favour of those on mathematics. But by the middle of the 18th century intellectual and institutional changes were hardening towards the inexorable exclusion of women from formal science.

One strand in this was a general professionalisation of traditional medical practices, such that apothecaries cut their ties with spicers, surgeons with barbers, dentists with tooth-pullers and veterinarians with blacksmiths. In this the occupations hitherto dominated by women, such as midwifery and medical cookery, were no exception. Medical cookery was transformed into the academic fields of nutrition, botany and pharmacy, increasingly carried out by men, and the professions of obstetrics and gynaecology separated respectable science from midwifery, which went on mainly for the benefit of the poor. All attempts by midwives to form themselves into a trained corporate body were rebuffed and they were also refused entry to medical colleges. This was not simply a matter of professional competition. Schiebinger notes that knowledge of fertility control was suppressed along with the midwife: in the early 17th century two hundred contraceptive and abortion methods were known and used. The state and the church were, however, concerned to foster population growth and it is in this context that the role of the midwife changed. She had earlier been both a doctor and a teacher of other women, but she now became an agent of the state and church whose licence did not guarantee professional competence but moral character. Midwives were called on to baptise infants close to death, to certify virginity and to register illegitimate births, to make sure that women did not kill or conceal their offspring.

The ascendancy of the male expert now legitimated by academies and universities which kept out women, had the consequence that women lost control over their own health care, and over scientific definitions of the female mind and body. It is here that Schiebinger is particularly instructive, since she is able to demonstrate the cycle of exclusion. Women were identified with the gender concept of the ‘feminine’, which in the form of muses was for a long time the icon of Scientia, but came to be incompatible with the actual doing of science. For Renaissance Neo-Platonists the feminine muse appeared as the partner of the scientist, his guide to the secrets of the universe. It is interesting that women scientists, such as the 17th-century astronomer Maria Cunitz, identified themselves with the muses. But such conceits were swept aside with the development of Baconian ‘masculine’ science. Bacon had criticised ancient philosophy as ‘feminine’ (passive, weak, expectant) in contrast with the new ‘masculine’ philosophy, which was to be active and generative, drawn from ‘the light of nature, not from the darkness of antiquity’. Empirical English was opposed to ‘effeminate’, rhetorical Continental science. The effect was to undermine women’s already weak position in intellectual life, as the philosopher Margaret Cavendish realised. She wrote as early as 1666: ‘For though the Muses, Graces and Sciences are all of the female gender, yet they were more esteemed in former ages, than they are now; nay, could it be done handsomely, they would turn them all from Females into Males; so great is grown the self-conceit of the Masculine, and the disregard of the Female Sex.’

Bacon, Descartes, Locke and Newton all rejected allegory and the personification of the mind or the soul. In science the ‘feminine’ was excised from the imagined process of discovery, which was now seen as the practical activity of revealing natural laws: but it lingered in the struggle over scholarly style in the 18th century. Might there not still be room for ‘feminine’ scholarship, an aristocratic, graceful, poetic style? This was not to prevail. The feminine gender now came to be linked to the question of the proper place of women in intellectual society. Ancient fears even of the presence of women, who ‘so enervate and relax the mind’, were reflected in the very statutes of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, now come to prominence. Rousseau let loose a devastating attack on the gallant literary style, influenced by women in salons, who gathered about them ‘a harem of men’ more womanish than themselves. Goethe’s reputation as a scientist was said to have been ruined by his fame as a poet. The violent rejection of the ‘feminine’ swept away with it the possibilities for women to participate in science.

Early Modern feminists in the Christian tradition extended the idea that ‘the soul has no sex’ (in Heaven people shed their genitalia) to assert that ‘the mind has no sex.’ But they were rebutted by the scientists, who here retained a lingering notion derived from the ancient humours: women were colder and moister than men. The cold female temperament derived from physical characteristics: the female was generated from a colder seed originating in the man’s ‘feminine’ left testicle. Though modern anatomy as it was coming to be practised provided no evidence for them, such remaining beliefs allowed scientists to continue to assert that ‘the mind does have a sex.’ Meanwhile, anatomy searched for sexual difference in the skeleton in accordance with the ideal of women’s fittedness above all for motherhood. Anatomical drawing overemphasised the female pelvis and the length of the neck. Following the discovery of eggs in the ovaries, analogies were made between women and birds, especially the ostrich. In the late 18th century it was discovered that the female skull is not smaller in proportion to the body than the male, as had confidently been supposed, but larger. Though somewhat disconcerted, scientists soon found a way of explaining this by women’s incomplete development, their likeness to children. All of this was fuelled by the success of the idea of the essential complementarity, as opposed to the equality, of the sexes. Sexual differences came to be ranked in a single hierarchy with races.

Schiebinger’s book closes with a discussion of the political foundations of the theory of sexual complementarity, its role in purging women from science (and science from women), and the various feminist reactions to the idea of women’s ‘special nature’. Readable, carefully-constructed and elegant, the book does not force any particular view, but presents us with incontrovertible evidence of the crucial role of science in the creation of Western ideas of gender.

Donna Haraway attacks the same question in reverse. Given Western concepts of gender, what did primatologists, both men and women, read into the ‘nature’ of the baboons and chimpanzees they studied? And what did the stories they told inspire people to think about humanity and animality? This is a large, exciting, important book. Primatology, as Haraway says, is a ‘storytelling craft’ and its stories are about the origin and nature of ‘man’, along with the origin of society, marriage and language. It is overwhelmingly a 20th-century preoccupation (up to 1914 a complete bibliography gave only five thousand primatological titles as compared to the fifty thousand catalogued studies of fishes). Faced with the evidence of our attachment to bizarre ape myths, one has to have sympathy with Haraway’s story-telling approach. In 1924 the Pasteur Institute’s laboratory colony of apes in French Guinea inflamed the public imagination. ‘French to Establish Model Village as Training Grounds for Apes in which Civilising Experiments Will Be Carried Out. Native Women as Nurses and Guides,’ ran the headline in the Chicago Tribune Ocean Times. The reader was led to imagine native women shepherding hundreds of ape students across the frontier between animal and human. Black, female and animal in a tropical colony: it was a potent mix which continued to mythologise primate studies for decades.

Haraway’s first story concerns Akeley, the naturalist and taxidermist of the 1920s-30s, whose highest quarry was the gorilla – ‘much more interesting than lions, elephants or any other African game’. Akeley was a hunter. He was also to try to persuade the Belgian Government to make the Lake Kivu region the first African national park to ensure a sanctuary for the gorilla. Why the gorilla and not a host of other species? Haraway suggests that it is because the gorilla is similar to man, a worthy opponent, the natural self. Not for Akeley the 19th-century encounter with a depraved, vicious beast: his gorilla was a noble, peaceful creature. So he brought his camera and white women with him to the forest, together with his guns. Then he found a track.

I’ll never forget it. In that mud hole were the marks of four great knuckles where the gorilla had placed his hand on the ground. There is no other track like this in the world – there is no other hand so large ... As I looked at that track I lost the faith on which I had brought my party to Africa. Instinctively I took my gun from the gun boy.

He killed the gorrilla and many others, and using the latest, most realistic techniques of taxidermy, was to enshrine them in the Africa Hall of the American Museum of Natural History. Its most perfect specimen is the Giant of Karisimbi, an adult male gorilla in the midst of exact reproductions of plants, insects, rocks and soil. Each diorama in the hall, called by Akeley ‘a peep-hole into the jungle’, is a vision of truth, an honest democratic vision, the testimony of one’s own eyes. But this knowledge was only obtainable through killing. This was the time of the gun-to-camera transition. As Susan Sontag observes, ‘when we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.’ Akeley believed that the camera couldn’t be deceived. An exact image of nature insures against time and disappearance, and it is more real than the depleted imaginings of urban people. Akeley designed his own camera, one ‘that you can aim ... with about the same ease that you can point a pistol’.

The next story concerns Yerkes and the Yale Laboratories of Primate Biology between the wars, where chimpanzees were to serve as subjects for a basic evolutionary naturalism. Yerkes’s psychobiology had to do with the construction of a comparative science of personalities enforcing proper relations of mind and body. He was not interested in the complex ecological parameters of adaptation, but in scales of neural complexity as markers of increasing behavioural capacity. Behaviour could be quantified and ranked. The implication of this was that society expressed the evolution of consciousness measured by behaviour which was more, or less, adaptive. Co-operation was one such adaptive, therefore intelligent act. The first locus of co-operation was the family, which Yerkes ‘discovered’ among his chimpanzees. He saw the apes as model systems for human engineering and therefore, Haraway writes, was inclined to the view that the chimpanzees approached the state of monogamy. In any case, Yerkes caged them in monogamous family units, so they did not have much choice. In this context he examined sexual and dominance behaviour, which furnished many analogies with human social life. Chimpanzees had no myth of equality of ability: social ranking was earned as a function of natural characteristics and developmental stage. ‘Sometimes one wonders whether this type of social organisation might not be valuable for man,’ Yerkes suggested.

The story moves to Carpenter and Altmann, and what Haraway calls the semiotics of the naturalistic field. The first field studies of monkeys were done around the time of the Second World War. They concentrated on the study of dominance as the primary integrating mechanism of primate society and analysed group interactions as signs of a functioning system. Females were bound to the group by the dominance of males; males were bound by the sexuality of females. Both were bound to one another by a logic of control. By this period anthropology had shown that it was no good looking at primitive peoples to discover the origins of sexual organisation: there, as in our own society, the ‘cultural veneer’ was too thick. Only primates could reveal what was once sought among people. Haraway does not accuse Carpenter of crude biological reduction – he adapted to the appropriate level of complexity the ideas of functionalism and sociometry then common in the social sciences – but she does claim that he was interested primarily, not in how groups form, but in how they might be managed. Interactions were signs; and in science, semiotics, she claims, using a hand-picked set of examples, ‘theorised communication as a problem in control systems’.

The idea of this book must by now be clear: primatology is an inherently political subject; and it is deeply affected by ‘simian orientalism’: the view, or rather the unconscious approach, in which primates, like orientals, are needed by the West as the ‘other’, a blank slate to be inscribed, in order that we may construct what we ourselves are. The second half of the book concerns feminist studies in primatology. It is a series of essays about women primatologists’ attempts to counteract the masculinist presentation of apes grouped round dominant males, in families, with females primarily classified by their state of sexual receptivity.

First, there is the ‘females do X too’ argument. Lancaster pointed out that female primates are competitive and take dominance seriously; they wander and are not representatives of home-loving femininity; they are sexually assertive, and have energy demands in their lives as great as those of males. Rowell showed that female monkeys should not be classified simply by whether or not they are old enough to breed: like males, they mature socially. In this kind of study the empathy of the female primatologist for the female monkey is held to cancel out bias. But Haraway rejects this as a way forward: primatology remains simian orientalism if one point of view simply succeeds another within the ubiquitous web of Western nature-culture. The ‘powerful move’ is not to provide a mirror-image, but to destabilise what is counted as knowledge. Other feminist stories follow. It is not only male reproductive success which produces diversity: female success does so too. Or, as Fedigan suggests, if sexual reproduction is not seen primarily as adaptive but just as possible, then many things are changed in our perceptions. And if, as is now thought, female primates have orgasms, does this not undercut the mainstay of the theory of sexual difference? Male orgasm had signified self-containment and self-transcendence simultaneously; now the female too had this symbolic prize, with its implication that women too could now be universal, unmarked, ‘possessed of reason, desire, citizenship and individuality’.

Is this so? Haraway cuts away even this feminist reasoning by noting its racial background. Virtually all women primatologists are white and middle-class. Black feminists face a different history, where black women’s sexual pleasure connoted closeness to an animal world of insatiable sensuality. Their politics of sexuality emphasise different themes: ‘subversive relationships between women, motherhood without wifehood, wifehood as a partnership outside of an economic exchange between men, and men as partners and not patriarchal fathers’. No text in primatology has quite escaped the web of its author’s culture, and Haraway in the end turns to feminist Science Fiction to show how new possibilities of understanding gender and species can arise.

Must we conclude that feminism is incompatible with science? If what is perceived as universal is still unmarked masculinism, then feminism cannot be seen as the realm of reason, only of opinion. Women can now produce science, as was hardly the case in the period described by Schiebinger, but feminist science is widely thought to be ‘biased’ and therefore not true science. A gendered point of view pollutes the generality of science (for Haraway all science is polluted). Yet the feminist narratives described by Haraway are also part of science, discussed at seminars, put in textbooks, etc. What part, she regrettably does not tell us. It is not so much that she assumes the reader will know already, but that her Post-Modernist method declares this to be irrelevant. Similarly, she does not choose to give weight to gender-neutral areas of primatology, notably ecological adaptation and its important link with the social stories she tells. Often her text does not give quite enough information to the uninitiated, and this, together with the selection of American-only feminist primatologists in the contemporary section, a slight over-the-topness in Post-Modern jargon, and not giving pages for references, makes her book quite hard to assess. In addition, there is the intended difficulty of the book, which, in Haraway’s words, ‘is replete with representations of representations, deliberately mixing genres and contexts to play with scientific and popular accounts in ways their “original” authors would rarely authorise’.

The real problem raised by Primate Visions is the relation between feminism and Post-Modernism. If feminism is directed towards the abolition of the sex class system and the forms of inner life which go with it, feminism must also believe that these inequalities are real. Does this not imply that the feminist stories in primatology may be right or wrong, that we can distinguish between good and bad stories, and that Haraway, in refusing to take a stance, is begging the question? Despite these problems, however, the voyage through her narratives is well worth making. Your big questions will not be answered: all stories across the cultural/political boundaries of animal and human are unfinished. You must forget those wistful desires to know, and be prepared to breast waves of fashionable locutions. But you will see how entrapped our primate visions have been and get a glimpse of what it might be to investigate further ‘fictional’ worlds in which other genders and species are not merely dull mirrors of our own.