Foe of Feminists Revived

Image: Bilz 1894

Last year biological determinism in the study of sex and gender experienced a resurgence, with the professor of Development Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, Simon Baron-Cohen, as its new figurehead.

In the spring months of 2010, the issue of female representation in public and intellectual spheres was passed along from public intellectual to public intellectual in a series of finger-pointing articles featured on the Guardian website.

Critic and novelist Bidisha initiatiated the debate with a scathing attack on the sorry state of the literary festivals and competitions that she had been involved with, complaining that she was ‘tired of being the token woman’. In the process Bidisha implicated Hay’s How The Light Gets In philosophy festival for its disproportionate number of male speakers. She revealed that she was happy to have had to drop out of the event on account of other engagements, highlighting that the only approvable gender balance in the whole festival was unfortunately within the entertainment tents.

Julian Baggini, the increasingly public face of philosophy as well as adviser to the How The Light Gets In festival, responded with an appeal to the practical issues involved in booking female guests, who he maintains are culpable to some extent for their unforthcoming natures. Unavoidable factors such as time restrictions and the imperative to produce a line-up as soon as possible makes its a practical impossibility to book a representative roster of female intellectuals, Baggini claimed, who in his experience are more likely to decline than their male counterparts. In the course of the article Baggini also presents some alarming statistics about the proportion of females in professional academic philosophy, according to a study conducted by The Philosophers’ Magazine which he edits (follow the link below to the TPM study).

Feminist writer Natasha Walters, author of the recent book Living Dolls, then laid her cards on the table by stating, contrary to Baggini’s suggestion that female writers are by their natures less likely to involve themselves, that social and cultural pressures are responsible instead. Walters cites as evidence a recent study made by the University of Cambridge into the oppressive effect of the stereotypical yet persistently existent role of females in family and home life (see the Telegraph link). Psychologist Baron-Cohen, as well as Stephen Pinker, was expressly in Walter’s sights as she pointed out the revival of biological determinism, which could work to corroborate views like Baggini’s.

In the fullest expression of biological determinism of this intellectual back-and-forth, Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge and unlikely cousin of Ali G comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen, expressed sympathy for the feminist cause but deemed it non-sensical to reject what science has revealed. According to Baron-Cohen’s team’s research, presented publicly in his book The Essential Difference, firstly there are certain brain types, such as ‘systematisers’, and secondly certain brain types are more common in one sex than the other; males, for example, are more likely to be systematisers. Baron-Cohen points out that this new biological determinism is distinctly more nuanced than its historical predecessors. The 19th century dark history of writings on sex includes those of the early criminal theorist Cesare Lombroso, studies in the now discredited phrenology championed by Franz Joseph Gall, and the writings on sexual difference subsequent to Darwin’s own biological account in The Decent of Man, such as Otto Weininger’s unpalatable Sex and Character. Baron-Cohen is careful to point out that there is nothing in his research that precludes the possibility of females having the brain types that are more common to men, and vice versa, in fact the evidence that he reports to have collected suggests the contrary. While making explicit his awareness of the danger of using research such as his for sexist and exclusionary purposes, Baron-Cohen means also to point out that biological determinism itself is not inherently sexist.

The misapplications of socially sensitive research echo throughout history, one need only consider the fact that the above-mentioned rhetoric of the 19th century was hastily buried after suffering one of the very many deaths during the major events of the mid-20th century. While Baron-Cohen’s work, and new biological determinism generally, could not conceivably have such severe implications in this day and age, it still appears that feminism has a familiar ‘enemy’ on its horizon.


I’m tired of being the token woman by Bidisha for the Guardian

Why women will remain outnumbered by Julian Baggini for the Guardian

Women have gone missing, and sexist are dusting off old theories by Natasha Walters for the Guardian

It’s not sexist to accept that biology affects behaviour by Simon Baron-Cohen for the Guardian

Where are all the women? by Brooke Lewis for TPM: the philosopher’s magazine

Career women work longer hours than men by Sarah Womack for the Telegraph

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